No society can put an end to murder, rape or hatred. That’s the honest truth. Even in the most virtuous society, there will always be murderers, rapists and hate-mongers.
So why do we go about our lives every day as normally as we can? Well, because we believe that in all civilised societies, the rule of law will apply. Yes, there will be crimes. But the criminals will be pursued. And when they are apprehended, justice will be done. After due process, they will be given a punishment that is commensurate with their crimes once they are found guilty.
If, for some reason, this expectation of justice is constantly thwarted, if certain criminals can get away with murder and if the system is so warped that no justice is delivered, then you can begin to kiss your status as a civilised society goodbye. And your citizens will live in fear, knowing that the system will not act against those who harm them.
In India, the battle for justice is a constant struggle. First, police forces don’t always bother to catch those who prey on the weak and the helpless.
Second, influential and powerful people (the rich, politicians and their families etc.) know how to foil any attempts to hold them accountable. And finally, even assuming that the law enforcement system works, there is still the failing legal system to contend with: cases take years to come to trial, judges don’t have enough time to listen carefully to arguments, attempts are made to influence the judiciary. And so on.
Destroying a belief
Yet, so far, despite the many problems and some clear miscarriages of justice, our system has not got to the stage where we feel that murderers and rapists will get away with it and that society will not treat them as the terrible human beings they are. In most cases, the guilty parties will be caught and sentenced, or so we tell ourselves.
It is this belief in the rule of law that makes our society work, that gives us the confidence to go about our lives knowing that we live in a country that respects the rule of law.
Destroy that belief and you destroy the basis of our society.
A lot has been written about the Bilkis Bano case but most of it from a Hindu-Muslim perspective. That’s an important and valid perspective, but as I said here, some weeks ago, the issue goes beyond religious differences. It is about respect for life. About respect for women. About how difficult it is to ensure justice in today’s India.
Around 14 people were murdered. A three-year-old child had her head smashed in with a rock. Bilkis was gangraped. Her attackers left her for dead.
Does it really matter what religion she was? Isn’t what happened truly horrific just on a purely human level? Shouldn’t every person of every religion want to ensure that justice is done?
We have to now accept that there are people in positions of influence and power whose hatred of Muslims is so great that it negates their basic humanity. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the release of the rapists and murderers who had been convicted in that case went against everything that the Prime Minister had been saying about nari shakti (woman power) and women’s safety. I found it hard to believe, I wrote, that the Centre had agreed to let these men out of jail. It had to have been some local-level communalists in the Gujarat administration.
I was wrong.
The state of Gujarat has now disclosed that the decision to release the men took place with the full approval of the Union Home Ministry, which wrote to the Gujarat government on 11 July this year saying that it was okay with the release.
The reason given for letting these murderers and rapists out before the completion of their sentences is their ‘good behaviour’. In fact, when two of these men were out on parole during the time they were supposed to be in jail (it now emerges that at least two of these convicts spent 1,200 days or more roaming free on parole), they were the subject of FIRs for outraging the modesty of women and intimidation of witnesses. This is not hearsay. The website Mojo has published the FIRs. Good behaviour?
More shockingly, ministers in the Union government are saying that there was nothing wrong with the release. “I don’t find anything wrong with it. It is a process of law,” Prahlad Joshi, the Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister told NDTV. Even Hardik Patel, once hailed as the secular hope for Gujarat’s future (ha!) backed the release. “The state government has the authority to release prisoners for good behaviour,” he said. “I believe this is deliberately being projected wrongly.”
Here’s my question: would any of these people have said the same things about releasing the rapists and murders of Nirbhaya?
I think you know the answer.
Not everyone is as blinded by hatred and ambition as these people. The special CBI court judge who opposed the release (the Gujarat government and the home minister ignored his opinion) wrote “the accused had no enmity or any relation with the victims. The crime was committed only on the grounds that the victims belonged to a particular religion. In this case, even minor children and a pregnant woman were not spared. This is the worst form of hate crime and crime against humanity. The aggrieved in this crime is society at large.”
The judge is spot on. We have now reached a stage where politicians are willing to betray society’s expectations about justice and the rule of law only because of communal hatred, personal ambition and a hunger for votes. As the judge said, we, the people of India, are the aggrieved. It is our society at large that is damaged by such crimes. And it is even more damaged by the lack of basic humanity in our politicians.
We know what comes next. Even if the courts strike down the release of these rapists and murders, nothing will happen. They have already vanished. The Gujarat government will say that it cannot find them.
It is possible for people to disagree on Hindu-Muslim issues. But it would be a shame if we were to treat the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists and the murderers of her three-year-old daughter as just another Hindu-Muslim issue.
It is much more than that. It is an issue that shows us how deep the communal rot in our society has reached that politicians are willing to tear up the rule of law and to tell the nation that the guilty don’t always have to face punishment, especially if it is politically convenient to let them go.
It is this kind of issue that makes so many of us fear for the future. Yes, institutions have been subverted and damaged before. But when politicians demonstrate open contempt for the rule of law itself, then nobody — Hindu, Muslim or whatever — is safe.
It is India that loses.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)